Cheryl held her dress up as she climbed the concrete steps. She heard music playing and knocked on the big, wood door. She put on her mask. It had fabric roses on the side, matching her low-cut gown with the two red roses by her underarms. A woman answered the door. Below her purple mask, she had big thick lips and a mole.
"Who are you?" the woman asked, her eyes wild.
"Hi, I'm Cheryl," she said too cheerfully. "Susan invited me. I work with her at the hospital. We're receptionists."
The woman backed away from the doorframe, still staring at her.
"Are you the hostess?" Cheryl asked. "I didn't mean to intrude on your party, but Susan said…"
"Come in," the woman said coldly. Then she turned around and walked off to the corner of the room, her short dress riding up in the back.
Cheryl looked through her mask eagerly. The people at the party were lying around on the couches, standing awkwardly holding martinis, blowing smoke through their lips. She searched the crowd for "him." A man with a potbelly stared at her. His mask was made of leather. She smiled politely, as she'd been brought up to do, but continued looking. Her eyes rested on a dapper, distinguished man. He was wearing a gray suit. His mask was simple and gray, color-coordinated with the rest of his outfit. He reminded her of her father, a Gregory Peck or Cary Grant type. A true gentleman.
She touched her hair nervously. She made her way through the curves of people over to the table where the wine bottles and glasses stood not so far from the gentleman and his friend. Pouring herself a drink meticulously, she flashed her eyes over towards him every now and then. She finally caught his eye as he looked away from the man he was chatting up. He smiled a little. She smiled back. He excused himself from his conversation, and walked over to her.
"Hello," he said kindly. Cheryl imagined her life in black and white.
She nodded in return, sipped her wine gracefully. She wasn't a pony-tailed girl who wore knee-high white socks and Mary Janes. She was a cultured, sophisticated city woman.
"You look familiar," the man said. "Have we met?"
"Oh, no, I don't think so," Cheryl said. "Do you work at the hospital?"
"Well, that's where I work. I'm a receptionist. With Susan. Do you know her?"
"No, I don't. It must be your mask. Confused me." He lit a cigarette, put it to his gentle lips, inhaled, exhaled. The smoke curled towards her face. He held out the hand not holding the cigarette. "Simon Dalton. And you are?"
"Pleased to meet you," Simon said with sincerity.
"Likewise, I'm sure," Cheryl said, then berated herself. She probably sounded ridiculous. She could feel her cheeks turn red. Simon was grinning.
"This party's rather stuffy, don't you think?" he asked. "The room and the people."
"Oh, I don't think—"
"Would you like to go get something to eat? I skipped dinner to get to this party on time."
"Well… yes, of course."
They left the party, went out into the warm summer air. Simon pulled off his mask, his eyes looked even more beautiful now. They were the lightest crystal blue, sparkling and pure. Reluctantly, Cheryl took hers off as well.
"I know a great place," Simon said. "Do you like Japanese?"
"I wouldn't know, I've never tried it."
"I must treat you to some sushi then!"
The Japanese restaurant had a name she didn't know how to pronounce. It looked small from the outside, but it went back far once you were in. Simon ordered for both of them, and while they waited for their food, they played the questions game, as people do when first meeting.
"Are you from the city?" he asked.
"No, I'm from the suburbs, only twenty minutes away," she paused. "But a world apart."
"A world apart, huh? How so?"
"Everything's subdued and homogeneous there. The city is so much classier. I never would have met someone like you in the suburbs. Do you have a girlfriend, Simon?"
"No, not at the moment," he said. His eyes were focused on a point far out to the left of her. "I know everyone goes through their struggles with finding the right kind of person, but I think I've had it especially tough. Not many women can understand me, I suppose."
"I can't imagine why not. You seem simple enough to me. I mean…" She blushed. "I don't mean that you're plain, but you just seem very upfront and honest. I don't believe you're hiding any deep secrets."
The waitress brought their sushi. Cheryl had never used chopsticks before. Simon reached across the table, nudged her fingers into the correct position. She could feel her heart banging around as he touched her hands. Bottom stick in curve of thumb and against ring finger, top stick between pointer and middle.
"Or just stab at it with one of the chopsticks," he said as she did just that. They laughed. When the wasabi zipped up her nose like an electric current, they laughed harder. Her eyes burned with tears, her nose ran, she cried between giggles, "You should have warned me!"
Suddenly, she realized it must be late. She asked Simon for the time. Half past eleven. She reminded herself she didn't have all the time in the world; she needed to get working. She took a good look at Simon. He still seemed to be the charming gentleman she'd met at the party. She couldn't understand how he could be so nice.
"Tell me," she said. "What do you feel most guilty of? What moment in your life would you take back?"
"Certainly not light conversation we're having," he said smiling, but then his blue eyes got hushed and quiet. Cheryl could almost see the guilt. He was quiet for a long time.
"I feel awfully guilty about what I did to my sister once," Cheryl said. "She was five, and I was eight. She had just lost her first tooth. I built up this elaborate story about the tooth fairy. How she was so beautiful, and if you leave your tooth under your pillow, you get a shiny silver quarter, as well as granting all your wishes. But since she never told our parents, she never found a quarter. I was mad at her because Mom said I had to bring her along to visit my neighborhood friends and she was such an annoying little baby. Everyone in our family called her the baby; they still do sometimes. I told my sister the tooth fairy didn't come because she still wet her bed and the fairy didn't want to get contaminated with filthy baby germs. I said the tooth fairy hated her even." Cheryl smiled, embarrassed. "I know we were only children, and that's just the kind of things sisters say sometimes, but I still feel badly about it. Sometimes I think I ruined her self-esteem. She's so fragile."
Simon nodded. "I told my father I hated him. He died the next day." A small gasp from Cheryl. "Sounds like a bad movie, huh?"
"Is that what you regret most?" she asked. Her fingers played with the roses on her dress.
"No," he said, smiling. "I regret not meeting you sooner."
"Are you trying to flatter me?"
"I don't regret that I told him that. I did hate him. Do hate him."